When I worked at a boarding school, a speaker gave a presentation to the entire student body about digital citizenship. Her message: Everything we ever do online is our little slice of immortality: it never goes away. What really got the kids’ attention was the fact that colleges paid for digital dossiers – full of all the stupid stuff teenagers post on social media – to help decide whether or not to accept someone. When she explained precisely what the colleges would see, the auditorium suddenly felt like a morgue. The entire senior class assumed in that moment that they were going to get rejected everywhere they applied.
And then, one particularly sharp – and deeply concerned – student asked the presenter an interesting question: If colleges can see everyone’s dirty laundry, and so very few 18 year-olds arrive at the application deadline unscathed and unashamed, who the heck actually gets in? Her response? “The students with the prettiest piles of dirt.”
So, what does that have to do with Survivor? This season, the producers have thankfully avoided both the Coronation Edit (Worlds Apart’s Mike) and the Awkward Inclusion of Unnecessary Confessionals Edit (Kaoh Rong’s Michele); every player remaining has a story with moments and moves that scream, “This PROVES that [insert player who did something stupid or is clearly being mocked by the producers] can’t win!” But someone’s gotta take down the title, right?
One thing’s for sure: Whoever wins is going to be a flawed individual with a flawed game. And that’s sort of beautiful, don’t you think? There’s no such thing as a perfect game of Survivor – even Kim Spradlin made a few questionable calls along the way – and it’s refreshing to see the story unfold with that truth front and center.
So who the heck is going to win, then? Who of the eight remaining castaways is going to convince the jury to give him, or her, a million dollars? Which of these imperfect players is going to survive the strategic and social stumbling and be crowned Sole Survivor?
The one with the prettiest pile of dirt, of course.
Obviously, Zeke isn’t winning (although the argument could be made that he is this season’s biggest winner; he’ll probably get to play three times before all is said and done). But I want to give the kid a shout-out: He was aggressive, intelligent, and social, and often gave the impression that he was a returnee playing with newbies. For all of Probst’s “this is a great season because everyone is playing so hard” rhetoric, really, Zeke was the only one out there playing both hard AND smart from Day 1 to Day 33; indeed, he’s the best overall S: MGX player and it’s not particularly close.
So, how is it that a newbie can play like a veteran? I realize that this is going to sound ridiculous, but I think it’s because of Survivor: Brooklyn. One of the more revelatory truths about Survivor is that you really don’t know how you’re going to play the game until you’re in the thick of things, and live games, particularly the ambitious ones, provide that opportunity. Zeke, from what I can gather (I haven’t watched the episodes), strategized with the likes of Sophie and Andrea when he played in Survivor: Brooklyn. There’s no better immersive education than that.
So if you think you might get cast in the real game one of these days, or if you want some highlight reel material to put in your 3-minute casting video, you might want to follow Zeke’s lead and play in one of the live games: Reelfoot… Brooklyn… the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge (the event I help produce). Not only will you have a hell of an experience, not only will you get to find out what sort of Survivor player you are when the game gets real, but you’ll be much more than a newbie when Probst and production wise up and put you on the show.
Okay, now on to the remaining players and their piles of dirt…
(Just so you know, I’m doing this in descending order of “chance in hell.”)
His dirt: In the span of two episodes, Will has gone from utterly invisible to annoyingly entitled. Hardly a compelling character arc.
On the one hand, I understand Will’s frustration: Thanks to being a Millennial and then on Ikabula, he hasn’t had much of a chance to play the game (that said, he appeared passive for the first fortnight on Vanua, and appeared to willingly accept a sidekick role with Jay after the swap; that could be editing chicanery, but somehow I doubt it). On the other hand, though, you have to play that game that has been shaped around you (including being grateful for such an easy path to the merge), and figure out a winning strategy once there was room to maneuver. Of course, he, like many a player before him, has bought into the Probstian myth of “The Big Move.” He took it a step further, of course, by whining at Tribal Council about respect, and announcing for all to hear, “I’m a contender,” which translates, loosely, to “vote me out.” I give him credit for realizing that he wasn’t perceived as a potential winner and trying to do something about it, but this wasn’t the way, Will.
(By the way, I bet Will, while watching these post-merge episodes with his buddies in his basement, keeps bellowing, “These editors aren’t giving me the respect I deserve!”)
Her dirt: Invisible pre-merge and ineffectual after it.
There are signs that Sunday’s been playing much harder than we’ve seen – I think she was the one who tricked David into playing his idol by saying “Ken,” and I’m virtually certain that she’s been feeding intel to Jay to keep her options open – but she’s been troped: the story is telling us that she’s this season’s “mom” character, a loyal number who won’t win. Sadly, even the editors rest on Sunday.
Her dirt: Despite her post-merge confessional emergence, which suggests she’ll have a seat at the Final Tribal Council, Hannah is being depicted as someone who we’re not meant to take seriously.
We’ve heard Zeke talk about how he “let [Hannah] be out front”… we’ve been shown her infatuation with Ken (and his brother)… and we’ve seen her Tribal Council anxiety episode after episode (I’m sure she said, “it’s me” at every Tribal she attended). Winner montage moments, these are not. She’s looking more and more like this season’s zero vote getter.
His dirt: He and Sunday have been wearing the same Harry Potter invisibility cloak since the start of the game.
To be sure, Bret’s had some nice moments: forming the rainbow connection with Zeke, being supportive and encouraging with David before the reward challenge, and, strategically speaking, building on what had to be a really strong social game at Ikabula to cultivate a connection with Jay. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen Bret be a relentless jerk at Tribal (read benevolent overlord Jeff Pitman’s column about the double episode if you haven’t already); an unflattering edit this late in the game doesn’t bode well (at this point, I doubt he makes the finale).
His dirt: After a promising early edit, he disappeared around the merge. And then, any hope generated by his immunity challenge win and being given the Legacy Advantage were annihilated by his boneheaded move to throw Will under the bus. There’s also a growing Matthew von Ertfelda-vibe to him (chopping coconuts while talking with David, for example), isn’t there?
Overall, I get the feeling that the edit is being extremely kind to Ken; I think he’s a lot more of a unique free spirit than is being shown. And by unique free spirit I mean “tenuously tethered to reality.” The other players clearly don’t know what to make of him, and probably would have made a move to take him out earlier if he was seen as anything other than a loyal foot-soldier in David’s army.
I think we’re being prepped for a relatively non-descript early-finale departure for Ken. A possible scenario: Ken wins an immunity challenge or two this Wednesday, becoming a legitimate threat to beast his way to the end, and when he plays the Legacy Advantage at the Final 6 (which Jay might steal; that would be brilliant television), everyone other than David decides that Ken needs to go. David, meanwhile, will go through the motions of trying to save Ken, but his heart won’t be in it because it’s a win-win for him either way: he’d beat Ken at the end, and you don’t willingly part with a player like that, but Ken is also a vote for him on the jury (as long as he at least appears to try to save his respect-revering buddy).
His dirt: When Taylor makes you look bad at Tribal Council, you did something very, very wrong. Oh, then there are those scenes where he “apologizes” to Taylor and tells Jay that he’s at the bottom. And let’s not forget that he yells, inexplicably, in every confessional. SO MUCH DIRT.
Man oh man oh man, did I want Adam to go full villain last week. It wasn’t going to happen, because Adam thinks he can win. But why not guarantee a seat at the Final Tribal Council – and a spot on a future season – by stealing the loved one’s visit? Especially after you’ve promised that you wouldn’t. Now THAT would have been awesome.
His dirt: The stench of the Triforce is strong with this one.
There really isn’t a lot of dirt here, truth be told. Nor should there be: by embracing his underdog bottom-dweller role, Jay avoided being collateral damage in the Zeke/David feud, and along the way, he’s discovered a possible path to the end. Sunday, it would seem, is feeding him information – there’s no way he sits on his idol five times in a row without inside intel – so he’ll know to play his idol when his day of reckoning comes. At that point, win a challenge or two – and who other than Ken could stop him? – and he’s got a seat at the Final Tribal Council.
Sadly – because I’ve grown fond of this kid, particularly since the Taylor boot – I think it’s pretty clear that he, like Malcolm, will fall just a little bit short. If he was our winner, the Jay-Sunday relationship would be getting the Malcolm-Denise treatment, but it isn’t. The good news is that he, like Malcolm, will almost certainly be invited to play again (hello, Season 36!).
His dirt: His recent immunity challenge win notwithstanding, David will go down in the annals of Survivor history as one of the worst challenge competitors to ever play the game. He also shrieked a lot at nature.
The post-merge narrative has been all about the battle between David and Zeke, and while Zeke won the rock draw battle, David won the flip zone war. Interestingly, David’s challenge ineptitude might come into play over the next five boots: The other players, who know that David is a threat to win, will keep delaying his ouster, believing that they’ll be able to take him out at Final 4 (because there’s no way he’d win the sort of endurance and/or coordination challenge that Kirhoffer typically puts there). Maybe David pulls out an improbable victory, or, more likely, convinces everyone that there’s a bigger threat to eliminate (Adam/Jay/Ken – whichever one is around). Anyway, the how is pure speculation, but the what – David’s ultimate triumph – feels ordained. And that’s not such a bad outcome, all things considered. He’s Cochran 2.0; maybe they can create a sitcom together (perhaps about two socially awkward millionaires living together, one a Millennial and one a Gen-Xer).
10) Delayed reaction: Taylor and Chris
Having missed the last two weeks (and three episodes) because of teaching obligations (darn day job) and Thanksgiving (family first), I thought I’d chime in with my quick reactions to the boots:
Taylor: You just know that he’s gonna be the guy who hands Hannah $100K by throwing a random vote her way because she’s a Millennial. “While I don’t remember ever talking to you,” he’ll say to the camera, “I’m voting for you because, like when I’m shredding a new trail, I follow my own path. Sicky-sicky gnar-gnar!” And I picked this guy to win. *hangs head in shame*
Chris: He broke Survivor commandment #29: Swear off vengeance; don’t ever focus on a single player. Clearly, Chris never got over the Paul blindside, and made it obvious to Jessica that he was gunning for her. When you’re a strong player – and as a leader and a challenge beast, Chris was far better than I thought he was going to be – the other castaways are going to take advantage of your strategic myopia. There is a time and a place for every Survivor boot, and when you try to accelerate the agenda, bad things happen.
11) Delayed reaction: Jessica
After watching Michelle, Taylor and Chris give surprisingly level-headed final words, it was refreshing – and heart-breaking – to witness Jessica’s emotional devastation after her abrupt departure. This is someone who was deeply invested in the game, someone who quite palpably cared about the unfolding and the outcome, and who, until she opened her hand and exposed the black rock, was a serious contender to win the whole thing. What we witnessed was brutal – would the reveal have hit any of the other five harder? – but it was also real and powerful and pure. I am very sorry that it happened, of course – one can’t help but experience the agony of empathy – but also, I’m very glad it did. There is beauty in tragedy.
12) Two quick final topics
The Rock Draw: I understand the need for rocks; there has to be some system in place to deal with deadlocks and stalemates. But I still hate them. Heck, I even hate fire-making – my feeling is that every elimination should be a vote – but at least that scenario involves the two targets fighting to save themselves. The fact that Zeke and Hannah didn’t have to draw rocks is utterly asinine (given the sort of players they are, one or both of them might have flipped, which is a lot more interesting than them getting immunity). By the by, if I’m Will – and I know I want to make big moves and flip on my alliance to take out Zeke anyway – then I’m flipping. Why place your game into the hands of fate when you have no intention of remaining loyal long-term? Ridiculous all the way around.
A Quick Look at the Jury: So far, we’ve got Michelle, Taylor, Chris, Jessica, and Zeke. Two lawyers, two strategists, and a moron. I think it’s a safe bet we’re not getting a bitter jury. May the best strategist win.
13) Prediction time
Hmmmm. I’ve been wrong A LOT this season. And as much as I like being wrong, I’m not sure I enjoy being incessantly asinine.
Oh, well – I’ll blame it on the pretty piles of dirt. I’ll also give credit where its due: the edit, I feel, has turned a lot of questionable strategy into a strangely satisfying season. Given how unpredictable the game has been while watching it, can you imagine how insane it was to actually play it? There’s no cluster trusty enough to offer any semblance of security. All’s well that ends well, though: after so much chaos, the winner, one has to assume, will be a worthy one.
Anyway, the prediction (it’s a double-boot episode, so I’m about to be twice as inaccurate as I usually am): As an unstable isotope ready to blow up everyone’s game, everyone agrees that Will should join the jury… and, because I can’t conceive of a 6 person finale with both Sunday and Bret in it, I’ll say that Bret, due to a split vote and Jay playing his idol, follows shortly thereafter (and promptly drinks all of the alcohol at Ponderosa).
And because I’m a glutton for comment section punishment, let’s play out the rest of this narrative:
6) Ken: In a convergence of advantages, which is one of the scenarios production desperately wanted to see play out, Ken tries to play the Legacy Advantage at the Immunity Challenge and Jay steals it and wins the necklace.
5) Jay: As the biggest immunity threat left in the game, he either leaves at F5 or F4 – or wins.
4) Adam: It’s the Battle of the Journey Characters! In a rare case of narrative overlap, Adam and David have both been given journey edits; one of them will leave in the Spencer spot, and one will wear the crown. David has the better overall edit, so Adam has to fall just short of Final Tribal Council (and really, as soon as he had that “what I’ve gotten out of this experience is worth more to me than a million dollars” confessional, he was doomed).
3) Hannah: No votes. But she gets to shove this in Professor Dawson’s face for the rest of her life. That’s a pretty good bronze medal.
2) Sunday: She could get zero votes… but she could also make it mildly competitive (if she gets Bret, Chris, Jay, and Taylor). The big jury will benefit David, though.
1) David: If a TV writer from Sherman Oaks was going to win Survivor, and it wasn’t going to be me, I’m happy that it’s David. Seems like a genuinely nice guy. And any season that ends with a solid strategist as Sole Survivor is all right with me.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius